Words by Hannah O'Brien
So while it may not ‘cost’ anything to be kind, it does involve a self-sacrifice.
When I was asked to write about the topic of kindness for Artemis, I thought it would be easy. Who doesn’t want to be kind? Who doesn’t want more kindness in their life? But as the days went on, I started to question the very definition of what kindness was – and ultimately, am I kind? It may not be written this way in the dictionary, but for me, there are two types of kindness. The first is ‘basic kindness’ which I think can more often actually just be politeness, such as not letting a door slam on someone, holding the lift if you see someone approaching, offering a pregnant woman or elderly person a seat. Something which is easy to offer is normally instinctive and requires little extra thought. The second type of kindness, which is where I think ‘being polite’ and ‘being kind’ differ, is where doing something kind requires you to make a personal sacrifice, whether that’s for a stranger (you notice someone crying and despite knowing it will make you late for work, you stop to make sure that they are okay/offer help), or for a friend (giving up your only free night of the week to attend an event that you have no interest in because you know how nervous they are about going). So while it may not ‘cost’ anything to be kind, it does involve a self-sacrifice. Recently, one of my closest friends suffered a significant head injury that left her unable to leave the house and then unable to work for months. Where previously she had been living her life at 100 miles an hour in a job which saw her visit three countries in a week, she now found watching TV, someone’s loud voice or listening to music was too much of a stimulus and walking across a room would see her having to hold on to things around her to keep her balance. There are two things that her experience has taught me. The first is that it is exhausting being the person who always has to remind people that they cannot do something or that something will make them feel unwell. Being kind is recognising these things and changing them without them having to be asked and ideally without your friend recognising you are doing it for them (asking a taxi driver to turn off a car radio, walking very slowly when you would instinctively march along, not clattering pans when cooking).
Part of being kind is recognising what the kindest thing to do is in each scenario and constantly flexing your own behaviour to accommodate these new scenarios.
The second thing is to recognise when you are actually being kind and when you think you are being kind, but you are actually being over-protective or not helping at all. One of the things that Joanna Cannon, the author of The Trouble of Goats and Sheep, has taught me is that being kind is a great responsibility. You may think that taking over when your unwell friend is making dinner is helping – but while that would have been kind previously when they were less well, they may now be enjoying their new independence in doing these things and by taking over, you are making them feel as if they are incapable or not doing well enough. I think it is this constant balancing act and getting this balance right which is the definition of true kindness. Finally, as much as you should always do your best to be truly kind, no one can give everything all of the time. In a busy world and in our busy lives, it can be easy to overlook the things that are right in front of us and it can feel overwhelming to have to think about actively being kind. In fact, I believe that in order to be in a state of mind where you can recognise a) when someone needs you to be kind and b) what action is the kindest for that particular scenario, sometimes the most important thing is to be kind to yourself. So, am I kind? I don’t think I always get it right and I can certainly be guilty of being so caught up in my own thoughts and worries that I may not recognise an opportunity to be kind, but I do try very hard to be. And, if I am being kind to myself, I would say that that is the most important thing.
I am a Londoner with Aussie roots and am often described as being ‘relentlessly enthusiastic’. I live with my husband in Peckham and love to eat, read, cook and travel – and I can often be found doing all at once. I am very lucky to do a job that I love as the Marketing Director for HarperFiction & Avon with liaison responsibility for Australia, where I get to work with authors and colleagues who inspire me every day.
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